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On Books by Norman Spinrad

IRON COUNCIL
by China Miéville
Del Rey, $24.95
ISBN: 0345464028

There is something serendipitous about find myself sitting here in New York the day after the end of the Republican National Convention writing this essay after four days running with the demonstrations, and the first novel at hand is the one I finished reading during them, China Miéville’s Iron Council.

This is the third book in his "New Crobuzon" series, the first being Perdido Street Station, which I lauded in these pages, and the second being The Scar, which I missed reading due to the indifference of publishers in supplying galleys and review copies, which seems to have become endemic.

So don’t blame me if I haven’t reviewed your book, and as a novelist it scares me, as well it should. I mean, if I’m not getting review copies of your books, you’ll pardon me for worrying about who in hell is getting review copies of mine. Then, too, this puts me in a mood not to spend my own money buying their product to review, made worse by the chronic reviewer’s attitude that freebies are his birthright.

Nevertheless I did buy Iron Council, for the simple reason that, whether I would end up reviewing it or not, I wanted to read it. What greater praise for a writer than that a hardened freebie hound would actually pay money to read his latest?

For the past four days, I’ve spent time with demonstrations against the Coronation of King W, not the official ones which sought and were granted permits, but the unofficial direct action ones, which neither sought nor received license from the Crown to attempt their revolutionary acts.

And what was I reading in the meantime? A novel that is forthrightly the story of a revolution.

Iron Council is a forthright and forthrightly passionate political novel, a revolutionary socialist novel at that, and, by my reading at least, at the very least generically Marxist, or arguably anarcho-syndicalist, or some combination thereof.

Certainly in broad general terms –the terms that go way back to the Paris Commune at least–Iron Council is the story of a popular anarcho-socialist revolution against a corporate capitalist state, and Miéville is out there waving the red–or is it black?–flag on the barricades with his fictional revolutionaries.

This is that rara avis, a literarily successful political advocacy novel, and what it is advocating is a collectivist anarchist-socialist society, to be achieved, if at all, by revolutionary violence and popular uprising.

It is also the third volume of a trilogy or, gah, perhaps an open-ended series. And it is fantasy, not science fiction. If it were not the third volume of a fantasy series, the first two of which established the writer’s major reputation, it would have had about as much chance of being published in the United States as Fidel Castro has of being invited to a state dinner at the White House.

The universe of Iron Council is completely disconnected from our own. The story takes place on a planet called "Bas-Lag" somewhere somewhen and there is no attempt to explain or even hint at where or when. The tech level is vaguely if mildly retro, ranging to Gatling guns, dirigibles, trains, and elevated metros. Magic is another gamut of technology ranging from failed street spells to golems and sprites and non-material powers with the world-wrecking puissance to turn Edmond Hamilton green with envy. Magic and technology boil in the same bouillabaisse to the point where they blend into each other. There are no discernable rules or parameters. Magicks not only are pulled out of any available hat to suit the plot moment, but the rabbits pull more of them out of their own hats as they emerge into the story.

Humans are the dominant species, at least in New Crobuzon. But alien species abound to the point where they can’t even be counted, let alone taxonomically sorted out, and new ones pop up previously unintroduced at every turn.

New Crobuzon is an immense sprawling, brawling city that seems to be the most economically and politically dominant political entity in this world. It owes much to the London of Dickens and Michael Moorcock’s Mother London, with an overlay of Paris on the verge of the Paris Commune, smoldering with pre-revolutionary ire.

This is not conventional genre fantasy in which the game is to establish known rules of magicks that work, build a consistent world inhabited by known or at least pre-rumored creatures, species, and entities, and let the story unfold with- in a universe that coheres logically.

This is something else. Iron Council is fantasy that makes no pretense that it is anything but a literary construct at the arbitrary service of the story being told within it. A story that forthrightly proclaims its inspirational revolutionary purpose.

New Crobuzon is a kind of fascist state with a democratic face; there are elections for office, but only a small number of people vote, chosen by a supposedly random lottery–Al Capone elected Mayor of Chicago by paying attention to the polls and having the electorate jury-rigged by experts from Florida tweaking the results of the numbers game accordingly.

Instead of jails, there is the enlightened penal practice of "Remaking." Convicted criminals, instead of receiving extended room and board at the expense of the state, are turned into changeling monsters, the punishment artistically designed to fit the crime, and turned loose as a convenient source of an underclass and slave labor.

One major thread of the novel is the story of Ori, lowly laborer and barroom revolutionary, on his rise to political consciousness, more commitment to ever more radical revolutionary action groups, and a pivotal plot point during the full-bore revolution; a piece of proletarian fiction out of the 1930s.

Another major thread is a weird kind of western. A visionary capitalist robber baron straight out of the American mid-nineteenth century sets out to build a transcontinental railroad through the vast terra incognita of Bas-Lag beyond the satrapies of New Crobuzon. This is being done with roughnecks, cactus-men, and assorted other wage slaves, but also with an abundant supply of Remade slave labor confined in pens when they are not working, a kind of ultimate bottomline lumpenproletariat, feared, despised, and looked down upon by the humans and aliens who are at least getting paid.

Well, the railway company dives into the red and stops paying its workers, they strike, the Remade join them, and together they commandeer the train, form a Collective, the Iron Council of the title, and flee slowly into the wilderness by laying tracks ahead of their train and pulling up the rails behind them.

Instrumental in this is Judah Low, a naturalist who learned the art, or craft, or magic, of golem making from the non-human swamp dwellers as their habitat was being destroyed by the manifest destiny of the railroad. Instrumental also is Cutter, lone-wolf bushranger and Judah’s sometime lover.

The Iron Council chugs off into the unknown, to become an urban legend in pre-revolutionary New Crobuzon later on in the middle of the Viet Nam War–whoops, the war between New Crobuzon and the Tesh–being fought a long way off for reasons too obscure for the populace thereof to really follow in the censored establishment press, or in the revolutionary broadsheets that abound.

The revolution breaks out in New Crobuzon. Cutter fetches Judah from the city to return to the Iron Council, a mission to bring it back from the mists of legend to inspire the revolutionaries. They then commence an odyssey through the increasingly bizarre wildernesses in search of the Iron Council, along with various sidekicks. The last section of the book is the full story of the revolution in New Crobuzon, as the Iron Council lays track back from whence it came to the rescue.

You think you know how such a story must end, especially within a political and passionately revolutionary novel, but it doesn’t. Far be it from me to give away the ending even if I could, which I can’t, for it involves magic so convoluted and abstract that I can’t even understand it, not that I really believe Miéville intends me to, but the thematic confusion of it at least must be danced around.

Without giving too much away, the Iron Council does and does not arrive in New Crobuzon, and what hope it ends up providing is a literary act of romantic magical prestidigitation.

Maybe Miéville has adopted an apocryphal slogan from the Irish Republican Army: "Now is the time for a futile gesture." Maybe this is Mao’s notion of the permanent revolution, that it is the process and zeitgeist of this neverending story that is the true revolution, not the end product.

It does give the novel a certain tragic nobility, just as what raises Iron Council from the didactically polemic political novel to true literature is that Miéville has not left his sense of irony behind in his rush to the barricades. It is a dénouement you can legitimately argue with yourself about, and not only on the intellectual level but the emotional; it is emotionally disturbing, and that is perhaps the author’s intent.

And unlike most political novels, the personal emotional level is not only there but front and center, and thoroughly integrated with the great events in the macrocosm. Up until the ending, this is what kept me forgiving Miéville’s literary way with magic.

There’s magic all over the place, deuses and demons are conjured up ex machina at every plot turn, and there are no rules or regulations. Well okay, maybe you can accept such a situation in a trek through the unknown and even a war story, but when the dénouement resorts to conjuring the biggest Deus Ex Machina of all out of Einsteinian four-space, it breaks the formal parameters of the literary construct itself. It violates even surrealist logic, and for me, at least, on a emotional level.

Which retrospectively calls into question why there is magic in the first place. Miéville’s use of magic is of the "he assembled a blaster out of toothpicks and baling wire" variety, just like full-bore post-modern space opera, and his story takes place on an alien planet to boot, so he could just as easily have written Iron Council as science fiction, since the science in a certain species of the stuff is as much pure bullshit as anyone’s magic.

Moreover, it would have better served the revolutionary goal of the novel, for while the game of fantasy is to play with the impossible, the game of SF, even post-modern space opera, is to at least pretend the story takes place sometime somewhen within our own universe. Therefore, if literarily successful, it does more to inspire the reader with the subversive notion that what is advocated is possible and thus can aid in calling it into being.

So why wasn’t Iron Council written as science fiction?

The question is easy enough to answer if one is willing to descend into the down and dirty of publishing economic determinism:

So it wouldn’t be published as science fiction, stupid. So it could be published at all. Advocating a violent collectivist revolution in a disconnected fantasy universe where it can maybe be perceived as just a literary game is dicey enough, but doing it in a science fiction novel where it would cut too close to home reality would, under the present political situation in the United States, probably make it unpublishable, and if published, result in an unfriendly visit from the boys from Homeland Security.

Science fiction is being driven into the tarpits of extinction commercially, at least in the United States, and it’s not doing too well in Britain either, undone by its own generosity and the commercial success of its media versions.

When the successful mass market publication of the Tolkien novels rescued fantasy from those selfsame commercial tarpits, publishers stuck it in their "SF" lines, principally because most of the people they were commissioning to write it were their science fiction writers, who had the tools to reinvent fantasy as a commercial genre.

When the Science Fiction Writers of America debated whether to accept fantasy as a membership credential and candidate for Nebula Awards, the hard science fiction boys warned that bad things would come of it.

They were right. Righter than they thought.

Today it is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the product of the membership, when it is not novelizations of films, TV shows, and computer games, is dominantly fantasy. The readership for literarily ambitious science fiction, as defined by sales figures, was always elite, like the readership for literarily ambitious fiction in general. Fantasy came back on the coat-tails of science fiction in the 1960s and 1970s, but the "SF" boom of the 1970s and 1980s was really a fantasy boom more than anything else.

In retrospect, we can see that this was masked by the lift given to science fiction itself by Star Trek, Star Wars, and the dominance of "sci-fi" in Hollywood that followed. The rising tide lifted all ships, only some not as far as was thought at the time. "Sci-fi" media tie-ins, beneficiaries of multimillion dollar commercials reaching multimillion person audiences, outsold the bejesus out of free-standing science fiction even more so than fantasy.

Today with the economics and tech of special effects having progressed to the point where you can show anything you can dream up within a reasonable production budget, what mass audience there was for science fiction has been sucked up into films and TV shows and computer games.

Major publishers seem to be in the process of dropping literarily ambitious science fiction from their SF lines. I see the best minds of my generation and the ones that followed surrendering into small press publication in order to be published at all, or adapting their talents to fantasy, or in my case historical fiction–to earn a living, to be sure–but also to reach a readership of any meaningful size.

Even publishing superstars like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, who made the reputations and put up the numbers that have allowed them to do it with science fictional novels published as such by the usual suspects, have not only snakedanced out of SF genre publishing, but, at least for a while, have stopped writing science fiction. And any number of writers who thought they had long since established secure reputations as major science fiction writers have at least found themselves unable to secure major imprint publication for major work. I will not embarrass these luminaries by naming them, but I will embarrass myself by admitting that I am one of them.

NEUTRINO DRAG
by Paul Di Filippo
Four Walls Eight Windows,
$15.95
ISBN: 1568583001

But two new small press books embarrass no one but the majors who didn’t publish them.

Paul Di Filippo’s collection Neutrino Drag was published by Four Walls Eight Windows, an outfit on the interface between large small press and small independent mainstream house. Hardly any of these remain, eaten as they have been as imprints by the four massive conglomerates that dominate the industry.

And this is a step up for Di Filippo, previously published by unequivocal small presses. What does this mean in terms of readership? Well, when I gave up on trying to place He Walked Among Us with major publishers, I investigated possible small press publication. When I inquired as to sales figures, I was told with pride by some of the best of them that sometimes they sold as much as one thousand copies, and as for advances, well, er . . .

So I decided, pathetic as it was, to make an on-demand printing deal, which allowed me to reserve conventional volume rights against the advent of better days, or convincing Robin Williams to play the part of his life as the comedian from the future, and wait for the miracle to come.

Four Walls Eight Windows is not Paul Di Filippo’s miracle, but it is a step up into professional commercial publication. The question is not only why has it taken so long, but why wasn’t Di Filippo a major literary power a decade ago?

The stories in Neutrino Drag sequence in a reverse literary retrospective, beginning close to the full flower, and ending with early work, a dangerous structuring that only Di Filippo would have the loony- tunes chutzpah to adopt. But crazy he was not, for Neutrino Drag dem-onstrates that he has been one of the half-dozen best and most original short story writers in the genre almost from the outset. He is also the author of novels the absence of whose titles from Nebula and Hugo nominations dishonors the awards, also obscured in small press publication.

Coulda shoulda been the champ in his proper division. So what is a heavyweight doing in the featherweight ring?

Now readers of this magazine will know that Paul is an avid champion of the small press, and we can hope against cynical reason that this is a path he has chosen out of idealistic monkish dedication to the cause rather than major publishing obtuseness. But what about Eileen Gunn?

Her first collection, indeed her first solo volume publication of any kind, Stable Strategies, was published by something called Tachyon Publications. In days of yore, one learned the craft and established a reputation as a writer in the short story form, in anthologies and magazines first, and then a publisher could be found for a first novel. A first publication as a story collection was rare, and when it happened, principally when the writer decided that novel length was not their métier, it was disguised as a novel. The Martian Chronicles is not an novel, folks.

Gunn would seem to have followed the latter path, except that Stable Strategies has not been packaged as a novel. And not by a major publisher.

Is this a stable strategy?

A peculiarly apropos question, for the not-quite-title story, "Stable Strategies For Middle Management," is not only Gunn’s best known and most anthologized story, but a not-quite-hilarious send-up of middle management politics within an advertising agency, inspired and informed by Gunn’s previous incarnation as middle management at Microsoft.

The point of which for present purposes being that without even knowing anything at all about Gunn’s work history, this story itself makes it clear that this is a writer with general business street-smarts, not likely to have opted to make a debut in volume form with an unabashed short story collection from a small press publisher without knowing beforehand what they were going to do with it.

STABLE STRATEGIES AND OTHERS
by Eileen Gunn
Tachyon Publications
$14.95
ISBN: 189239118X

Stable Strategies arrived chez moi with a professional PR release and a professional eight-by-ten photo of the author, the package sent via Federal Express and giving the impression of the sort of slick press kit I used to get from studios and production companies when I was a film critic.

What this means, at least to me, is that Tachyon Publications has spent more money launching this book than the so-called major SF lines spend on anything beyond their seasonal lead. And unless they are completely out of their minds, they intend to get the money back and turn a profit on top of it. Which means they must sell something like five thousand trade books, which means they have to get out something more than that, which would seem to mean they have found ways and means to cobble together such distribution.

Very interesting.

Stable Strategies is straightforwardly a collection of short science fiction. They are as a whole very good science fiction stories, the title story really outstanding, that display a wide range and considerable literary skill, but always well within the parameters of the science fiction genre, many of them entirely successful on a literary level but likely to be rather incomprehensible to anyone new to the literature.

Indeed, the longest piece in the book, "Green Fire," a collaboration with Andy Duncan, Pat Murphy, and Michael Swanwick, is a World War II alternate reality story about something like the famous "Phil- adelphia Experiment," with the main characters being Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp and Isaac Asimov, who in fact were stationed together during the war. Here we have four of the top short SF writers, alas also more and more reduced to semi-professional publication, coming together to write a novella that would have worked just as well without these ultimate Tuckerisms for any readership but, well, the fans.

Literarily, this may be close to condition terminal, but it would seem that apparently commercially savvy people are betting more money than the conventional SF lines bet on most of their books that there is a readership in the neighborhood of five thousand sales for a really good first collection of science fiction stories, and that they know how to get the books to it.

Which is more than can be said for trade books published by so-called major SF lines, which count themselves lucky to get out fifteen thousand copies of most science fiction in mass market, when they can distribute a mass market edition at all.

So what is a major publisher and what is a small press?

It’s now unfortunately easy enough to say that a major house is an imprint of one of a handful of giant publishing conglomerates and a small press is anything else. But in days of yore, there were any number of independent houses playing in the big leagues, SF and otherwise–Doubleday, Ballantine, Knopf, Scribner’s, Putnam, and so forth, and they were the first division. They’ve just about all been gobbled up, but why can’t new ones arise?

The answer used to be that they had no means of getting mass market paperback distribution, but that was when a monthly SF mass market lead had a print run of one hundred thousand copies, and what with the collapse of mass market distribution, that tail no longer wags the trade dog. Trade publication is where it’s now at for anything other than blockbusters, and in this sphere, with a little more capital than small press publishers have yet shown, it may be possible for something like Tachyon Publications to evolve itself into the sort of thing that used to be simply an independent publisher, period.

It had better be. If it isn’t, literary science fiction, and, in the end, science fiction period, is doomed to a dwindling afterlife in so-called "semi-prozines" and amateur small press editions which count a thousand readers as success. Aside from the impossibility of making even the grubbiest living writing such stuff even at warp speed, it means that even the most dedicated literary artist possessed of a vast personal fortune is going to be driven elsewhere for lack of a creatively and emotionally sustaining readership.

And then not just the commercial viability of science fiction will be lost, but the literature itself.

We had better start thinking about what will be lost. Everyone knows what "fiction" means. But of late I have come to believe that what we generally mean by the "science" in "science fiction" is not that which we have been arguing about for over three quarters of a century.

That has usually come down to "hard science fiction" versus "soft science fiction," i.e., fiction in which the science is that of the physical realm versus fiction in which the science is that of the cultural or psychological realm, leading into the tiresome dispute as to whether sociology, psychology, linguistics, anthropology, and so forth are, or even can be, sciences at all.

Let’s leave that sterile horseshit behind and consider "science" as a worldview. Deeper even than the scientific method is the conviction that reality has a knowable nature, that all of creation is of a consistent pattern, that it is all interrelated, that what is is real, and what is real is ultimately knowable, and that the supernatural is therefore a contradiction in terms.

This, I am now prepared to contend, is the root metaphysical assumption of all true science fiction. And in literary terms, it means that all true science fiction is centered on the interaction of the external surround–physical, political, cultural, linguistic, anything and everything–with the lives and consciousness of the characters.

If it does this, and there is any speculative element in the externals of the fictional universe at all, it is true science fiction, and if it does not, it is not true science fiction. Period.

Fantasy can deal with the interaction of external realm and consciousness too, but since that species of external surround must incorporate discontinuities in the coherent consistent pattern–that is, magic–it cannot do what science fiction does. Which is to incorporate the events of the story and the world in which they take place into the realm of the reader’s psychological possible.

In literary terms, fantasy requires no suspension of disbelief because no belief is required. Whereas science fiction must create suspension of disbelief.

But why must science fiction suspend disbelief ?

Factor out the double negative and the answer becomes obvious: because science fiction must create belief.

Belief that its characters, however altered their states of consciousness, however evolved or devolved or alien, inhabit a fictional universe that, however far in the future or far away or both, could in the future or far away or even right now be contiguous with the reality that the reader inhabits.

Fantasy just can’t do this. If it does, by definition, it isn’t fantasy.

Consider just how unique and powerful a not only literary but transliterary effect science fiction can produce because of this that nothing else can.

Science fiction can envision not just technology and science beyond that presently existing in the universe of the reader, but cultures evolved beyond our own, and create a belief in the reader that such things are possible, indeed must demonstrate that they cohere with the realm of the possible in order to do so.

And if one believes that something is possible and it really is, one can be moved to attempt to make it so. Thus science fiction is not only a visionary literature that can transcend the culture in which it is created, but a transformational literature that can, and has from time to time, evolved those cultures onward.

An inherently revolutionary literature, in the macrocosm and the microcosm. For while it is said that no consciousness can comprehend a consciousness evolved beyond its own, science fiction readers are gifted with that comprehension all the time by writers who create such fictional characters. And by inhabiting the consciousness of such characters, armed with the belief that they exist in the realm of the possible, cannot readers aspire to attain the next level?

A revolutionary literature. A visionary literature. A transformational literature.

The one and the only.

In preparation for the writing of this essay, I was constrained to ask myself whether it was possible to write visionary transformational fantasy. Did such fiction exist? I came up dry. Is such fiction even theoretically possible?

I would love to have as many people as possible write it and prove me wrong, but I don’t think it is. In the terms I’m talking about, if it does it, it’s science fiction. I once wrote an essay for a teaching anthology called "Rubber Science," the major thrust of which was that all the so-called "science" in science fiction is really pseudo-science, stuff made up by the writer with literary care that it not be discontinuous with the reader’s realm of the possible. And that applies to evolved states of consciousness, too.

A visionary literature. A transformational literature. A means evolved by western evolutionary culture to further evolve itself.

This is what is being lost.

What a ghastly loss this would be is all too easily read from the states of human cultures that have never evolved a visionary art form to perform this function–Middle Eastern cultures frozen in retro Islamic patterns; China, which reached a pinnacle and then stagnated for over a thousand years; Egypt, gone to pyramids and dust; the glory that was You Name It. If you have no means of imagining and communicating a vision of something above and beyond the present state, you end up with a culture with no means of even conceptualizing it, let alone calling it into being.

This is why the dominant culture on this planet is the so-called West, more properly the globalized culture, for this is the deep force beneath the very notion of cultural progress itself, and this is what has enabled the only culture on Earth that somehow developed a means of doing so to dominate the globe for better and for worse. And no culture that lacks the force is going to be able to compete with one that has it, let alone make things better.

If you are protesting that this is a mighty karmic load to drop on writers struggling to keep their heads above water, you are right.

Tough shit.

Very tough shit indeed, but there you have it.

This is the situation.

What are we going to do about it?

To be brutally honest, I don’t know. After all, He Walked Among Us, my major effort at dealing with all of the above on a fictional level, the first meta-science fiction novel, as it has been called, can’t find meaningful publication, I have no heart for writing such stuff into a vacuum again, and I’ve been enjoying writing historical novels, finding that they allow me to get closer to the core of what I try to be about than fantasy or the contemporary novel.

Often enough of late, I’ve been wondering whether I should even continue to write these columns. Most of the SF publishers don’t seem to think it’s worth the postage, and maybe I’ve been at it too long and lost my positive critical perspective. Or maybe the situation really is too depressing to continue to contemplate.

At such times I feel like either a grumbling old fart muttering about a lost Golden Age or the youngest punk on the barricades. Maybe I should do a Tinkerbell. Tell me you want me to go on and maybe I will. Tell me to shut up and maybe I’ll be grateful.

But whenever I get to this point something happens. A writer of a marvelous book I’ve reviewed tells me I was the only critic who really got it. An editor tells me that I was the only critic who even did review a worthy book. A close writer friend tells me I can’t stop because no one else is doing what I’m doing.

MASTER OF NONE
by N. Lee Wood
Warner Aspect, $14.95
ISBN: 0446693049

Or I read a novel like Master of None by N. Lee Wood published under these devolved circumstances.

If you think I’ve been getting too personal herein, you ain’t seen nothing yet. N. Lee Wood happens to be my ex, and she not only didn’t want me to mention it, but didn’t want me to review her novel at all, and now I’m probably going to perform the amazing feat of pissing off an author by using a favorable review of her novel to make a point that needs making.

Sorry, Lee, but I gotta do it.

Because no one else will. And I’ve not been able to find another recent science fiction novel that will so serve.

Master of None is a classical science fiction novel. By that I do not mean that is one of the hyperbolically blurbed "instant classics" that abound, but that it is a novel written in the classical science fiction mode.

We are in what I guess would be deemed the medium-far future. An interstellar civilization and economy connected by "Worms," aka wormholes, more or less, the latest version of the classical FTL fudge factor that must be employed in any science fiction novel set in an interstellar culture with meaningful interstellar commerce.

Here the Worms, tech conveniently left behind for story purposes by some vanished higher civilization, have been engineered by humans into something like interstellar container freighters, also carrying passenger containers. But the passengers cannot enter the Worm itself. Only "Pilots," genetically engineered by the Vanar, can survive within their warped space-time.

Thus the Vanar control or at least dip their wick into all interstellar commerce and travel. Vanar is the richest planet in human space by far. And the Vanar have chosen to isolate their world from the rest of humanity. No one is allowed to visit except for diplomatic purposes, and then under tightly restricted conditions. And no men, ever.

Nathan Crewe is a botanist determined to make his academic reputation, and maybe even secure tenure somewhere, by publishing the first paper on Vanar flora studied in situ. He makes a deal that turns out to be dirtier than it seems to get illegally dumped on Vanar, knowing next to nothing about the self-isolated culture and assuming that the worst thing that can happen to him is deportation.

He is very wrong.

A classical science fiction set-up for a story that could be told in no other literary mode.

Nathan finds out just how wrong he is just about as soon as he hits the ground. He’s immediately arrested, told he’s stuck on Vanar for the rest of his life, and thrown in the local version of the slammer.

Vanar, it turns out, is a planet run entirely by women. Men are not slaves, but they have no legal civil rights, and are not even allowed to hold property. The story of Master of None is that of Nathan Crewe’s path from the lowest depths to key figure in the complex political over-story and his personal and political triumph–well, sort of.

Oh yes, you’ve read this sort of thing before, and many times–which is to my point, for you haven’t had the opportunity to read much of it lately, and certainly not on this level of serious intent. Master of None is a novel about gender and culture, harkening back to a literary discussion thereof within the literature a decade and more back with the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and Suzy McKee Charnas, and even with a contribution of my own from the male side, A World Between, but long since interrupted.

This is a subspecies of the classical science fiction novel that seemed to have disappeared already until this one. Master of None is among the best of them, but it seems to have emerged from a time warp.

Vanar is run by a few matriarchal families-cum-corporations, feudal capitalism of a kind. Men are boy toys, courtesans, or polyandric husbands, pawns in dynastic fun and power games, at least on the levels where such things go on. The legal system has its kangaroo aspects. But Vanar society also has its utopian aspects. Physical violence is virtually unknown, partly because, according to Wood at least, most of it is perpetrated by men, but also because even a punch in the nose is a serious felony. No one goes without food or shelter; if necessary these are provided gratis, if minimally, by what passes for the state.

Master of None faithfully and rigorously adheres to the formal and extrapolative parameters of the classical science fiction novel. That is what makes it a classical science fiction novel. A worthy classical science fiction novel fully appreciable only by the readership of the same sort of science fiction written by Poul Anderson, the Ursula K. Le Guin of The Left Hand of Darkness, Heinlein of a certain period, among several generations of others.

You start with a speculative premise, extrapolate a believable society from it, and tell a story within it that is emotionally gripping on a personal level, and elucidates your thematic points on a cultural level.

This is what Wood does here. This is at the very least the armature of any good literary science fiction. All sort of bells and whistles may be hung on it, but even if they are brilliant, without this classical formal armature, the believability of the novel creaks, and groans, and usually collapses.

The key is what is generally called "world-building." If you don’t build a believable world, you can’t really write a believable science fiction novel in the sense of convincing readers that the fictional world could exist in a reality contiguous with their own.

Wood does the job right here. Just about everything on Vanar is rendered in full colorful detail. The ecology. The botany. Interior decor. The complex detail and its ceremonial import of items of dress. The tech. Even the Vanar language, whose deliberately complex grammar, in the manner of full Japanese with its plethora of status verb endings, is a powerful means of social control. It is suggested in such detail that if you can’t really understand it, you are at least put in the position of Nathan arduously trying. Nor is psychological contiguity to the reader’s own reality scanted, for Vanar society, like our own, like any culture that is not a schematic utopia or dystopia, has its good and evil aspects that arise not from violation of the cultural norms, but from the nature of the culture itself.

When you read Master of None, you are fully there, and where you are is someplace that you can fully believe may exist at some time in the universe you inhabit. Classical science fiction.

And like all successful classical science fiction that goes a literary step further, the step that sometimes has the hard SF boys grumbling about "soft science fiction," the heart of Master of None, in many senses of the word, is not the world-shaking events in the macrocosm, but the evolution of Nathan’s consciousness within his internal microcosm as he struggles against, and yes, adapts, to the bending of his gender role by Vanar culture, and the bringing together of both aspects of the story in a climax that is satisfying on both a thematic and personal level.

Successful classical science fiction. Perhaps nothing more in terms of reaching a so-called "mainstream audience," but nothing less either, and therefore worth having in absolute literary and cultural terms for its own sake.

Something I fear we may not have much longer.

I risk provoking the ire of the general reader and the author in question by considering a novel with which I cannot deny some sort of personal connection because I have found no other current science fiction novel to discuss in a manner that makes my point. Because this kind of classical science fiction is hardly being published any more.

And the point is that classical science fiction–while it may not be or ever have been or ever can be the cutting or crossover edge–is and always has been and must be the central armature of the genre, in the absence of which the whole literary structure built up over decades by the lives’ work of our literary collectivity will collapse into the tarpits of "science fantasy" and tie-ins to movies, TV shows, and video games.

That I could find no more neutral exemplar to make this point, though I had abundant reason to try, is to the point, too.

Which is that this is the sort of novel that is now being squeezed from commercial viability in the so-called "major" SF lines and into small press publication, a process more than half completed, and later, via the inevitable discouragement of being able to approach anything like its natural audience, into literary extinction.

How to prevent this?

I don’t really know.

But one thing I do know is that playing the current publishing game according to the rules of the Marquis of Queensberry won’t do it.

If Tinkerbell is going to live, she needs a revolution.

 

 

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"On Books" by Norman Spinrad, copyright © 2005, with permission of the author.

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